ArtsEmerson Executive Director Rob Orchard reminisces about his experience working with Susan Sontag at the American Repertory Theater.
I had the pleasure of working with Susan Sontag twice at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge – once as a director in 1985, and once as a playwright in 1996. The first time was the most memorable.
When I think back on the 1985 project it’s hard not to chuckle at the accumulated pedigree and intellectual cred of the event – and it was an EVENT. The play was the American premiere of Jacques and his Master – a reworking of Denis Diderot’s 18th Century novel, Jacques The Fatalist, by none other than the celebrated novelist Milan Kundera – his first play written in 1971 not long after the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia. (Wow, think of that in light of the current events in the Ukraine).
So we had Diderot, Kundera and Sontag (in her American directorial debut.) Susan knew just what she wanted. Every image was carefully crafted with references to Piranesi and Brecht among others, but because this was her first time working with American actors, she had to adjust her metabolism to theirs. She came to rehearsal with every performance fully realized in her head and struggled to find reservoirs of patience working with the actors to get them up to speed. Every actor has their way of crafting a performance, and directors work best by giving them the space and time to work it out their way. A good director collaborates with each actor to tease out a performance, and directors have to be intuitive about just how to engage with an actor at any given time. This was hard for Susan, and she became a bit bored in rehearsal. To fill the time, she’d share fascinating anecdotes about the 18th century, all of which were mesmerizing, but these tangents began to frustrate the actors who needed her DIRECTION to build the performance. It was a struggle. She knew she was outside of her comfort zone, and her naturally inquisitive mind reached out for advice. It came from a sense of vulnerability but with a determination to get it right. We had numerous discrete conversations. She adjusted and persevered with the help of many people (it’s one of the great values of working with a resident company), and in the end it was something of a triumph. The production completely sold out before the first performance and played to 104 percent of capacity – at the time the highest capacity in A.R.T. history.
After the rehearsal day, people flocked around Sontag. Dinner and drinks together were memorable. She was silly and serious and always a bit naughty and mischievous. These same qualities come through in her diaries in Sontag: Reborn. Because of her extraordinary intellect and the scale of her public personality, it’s easy to think of her as an imperious, forbidding and unapproachable figure. I’m sure she played that role when she wanted to, but in my experience, she was none of that. The word fun comes most to mind. We had fun (albeit perhaps her brand of high level fun.) Spending an evening with her was always a delight.